Food for Thought

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

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I love traveling because I love experiencing other cultures, and there’s no place to better understand a culture than at its tables.  In Japan, there are lots of great opportunities for people watching.  For us, it was just walking by the local chicken skewer joint at 8pm to see the businessmen socializing after work, still in their long dark suits.  Or heading to Tsukiji, the biggest fish market in the world, and having sushi at 5am.  Do these things and your head will be fuller than your stomach.  I fondly recall trying to navigate through the sushi ordering process with the few Japanese words that I understood.  Luckily, the reaction to a good meal is a universally understood language.  Here is what I learned about Japanese culture by eating its food. 

 Food or Art?  Take a look at this awesome plate. 

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It was a part of a local, multi-course meal in Kyoto called kaiseki( 懐石).  Each and every plate was precisely laid out, and each and every cucumber was perfectly transformed into a small bird.  I often picture the person who learned to do this: just how long does it take to learn to carve perfect birds out of cucumbers?  I don’t know, but this level of detail is everywhere in Japan.     

On the travel show No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain grapples with how to make meaning from experience on his trips.  When asked what aspect of his culture he could not live without, his Japanese friend Hiroshi said, “Basically what this entire culture is about — it’s about detail.  We don’t have any choice because, compared to any other country, we have no actual natural resources at all… You can’t sell yourself in any other way except detail in anything that you do.”   When asked what was the greatest virtue of Japanese culture, Hiroshi said, “In the end, everything is beautiful.”

When I heard these words after my trip, they gave voice to everything I had fallen in love with when I was there.  I had no way to put it into words at the time.  All I knew was that I couldn’t help myself every time I came upon a bakery.  Yet another adorably crafted snack I wouldn’t see anywhere else.  Another yen spent.  Another calorie we would walk off as we explored the city.  Another example of attention to detail. 

ImageA Lifetime to Achieve Perfection 

If you have any interest in sushi and you haven’t seen the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you should.  No wait, I’m lying, you don’t need an interest in sushi: everyone should see this.  You can even stream it on Netflix.  It follows the man who is widely considered to be the best sushi chef in the world.  He’s 86 years old and still working.  His apprentices spend ten years there before they are even allowed to make an egg.  One recounted then grilling an egg 200 times before Jiro thought it was satisfactory.  People come from all over the world to experience this.   I find it amazing.  Our culture is getting more and more interested in multi-tasking, so the idea of spending your whole life perfecting one thing is romantic to me.  I know, I too might go crazy pretty early on if I spent that long doing nothing but making an egg.  I would also, at the end of it, know that I knew more about that one thing than anyone.  The lifelong desire to attain perfection is something I admire, especially the idea that you can always, always discover something new.  

ImageAttention to Ingredients  Ramen in Japan is completely different from the American conception.  I’m not talking about the bright packages of fried sodium-rich noodles kids live on in college.  It’s an art.  The places where lines form before they even open will often be obsessed with every small detail, for example, some will only use salt made on a tiny island by Okinawa.  They know, in detail, about everything.   One famous chef had another visit his shop to try his soup.  The other chef quietly told him to try increasing the water in his broth by 1%.  He tried it the next day and felt that it was a revelation. 

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The Japanese even put their food in beautiful boxes.  I recall one time Ed and I tried to purchase a large pastry at a department store.  In Japan, the basement level of a department store has a huge food court.  Aisles of people call out to you as you pass from counters selling all kinds of delicious things.  How cool is that?  Anyway, we were hungry and planning to eat this particular pastry right away. The woman proceeded to spend over 5 minutes wrapping it in ribbons and bows, then affixing a colorful sticker to the beautiful blue box to seal it closed.  We looked at one another somewhat guiltily and decided to walk a respectable distance away to a nearby park bench before tearing it to bits.  Talk about attention to detail.  The pastry itself was almost too beautiful to eat.  Almost. It turns out that when you unwrap a snack in a new place, you can get more out of it than just a bite to eat.   Although that is reason enough to see the world.  

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